On Thursday, Hendrick Motorsports announced a landmark three-year deal with DC Comics to cross-promote DC's comic book heroes with Hendrick's dream team of NASCAR drivers. Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon will team up, either in ads or "literally," with Green Lantern, Superman, Batman, the Flash, and other DC heroes to do ... well, we're not sure what, exactly, but it'll be cool, everybody involved is promising.
There's precedent here; most of the Hendrick drivers have sported superhero paint jobs at one point or another. Earnhardt was driving under the bat-signal when he broke his four-year losing streak a couple years back. Plus, of course, he and Johnson helped save the world in Transformers 3:
The press release announcing the deal is full of the kind of buzzwords that sound important but mean little, like "energize licensed merchandise initiatives" and "empowering consumers" and "activating partnerships." The real question is this: is this deal a good idea?
It's a brand partnership that has merit, yes, but plenty of risk ... the kind of risk you can't punch or shut down with a magic ring. The main issue here is that both NASCAR and DC Comics are American icons teetering on the edges of the public's consciousness. It's not quite clear yet who's getting the most benefit out of this one, but this much is clear: neither property is the obvious leader in its own competitive space.
Be honest with yourself: NASCAR is a niche sport. It's a big niche, yes, but a niche nonetheless. Like hockey and golf, NASCAR is a sport that everyone's aware of, but not everyone follows slavishly. Need proof? Ask your non-NASCAR friends to identify three drivers, and take Junior and Danica off the table. Who will they get? Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, probably, but after that ... the guy in those commercials? Who does that thing? You know who I mean, right?
DC, meanwhile, is suffering at the hands of its better-organized and better-funded rivals. DC's primary superhero competition is Marvel Comics, which, as you may have noticed, has had a wee bit of success lately with properties like the Avengers, Iron Man, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Captain America, Thor, and so on spreading from the funnybooks straight into the American consciousness. Everyone knows who Superman and Batman are, yes, but beyond that, the track record of DC heroes making the leap from niche heroes to worldwide icons is pretty weak. (Plus, DC has a habit of completely rebooting the universe in which its heroes live every few years. Sound like anyone you know?)
DC is on the verge of breaking huge into other media, with both movies and TV shows in the near future that will push its properties into new markets and minds. NASCAR, too, is enjoying its best season in quite some time, and a revamped Chase could keep the sport relevant and compelling for casual fans right on into November. Combine both of these elements, and you've got two old-line properties that might, might, be on the verge of new life.
Here's why the deal really makes sense, though: kids. NASCAR has to get to a younger fanbase. There are no other real options for growth. The older guard, the same crew that gripes that this warn't how we done it back when the Intimidator was alive, isn't a viable demographic to grow the sport. You've got to bring in new fans, and you've got to hook 'em young. To a kid, there's no real difference between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Superman, except that Superman shaves a little more often. So why not market NASCAR's best-known drivers like superheroes?
Best case: Hendrick and DC come up with some insanely brilliant marriage of brands like Lego has done with Marvel, exposing the NASCAR drivers to a whole new (young) audience that will then want to see what these guys are doing every Sunday afternoon. Worst case, you get some painfully slapdash brand-smearing like this cringeworthy cartoon, which deserves a "how many ways did they get NASCAR wrong?" post of its own:
The key, then, is getting people who know what they're doing to manage both properties. Both fandoms are notoriously harsh on outsiders, and any attempt to shoehorn NASCAR drivers into comic books or superheroes onto the racetrack is likely to be met with loud howls of protest from the longtime fans.
Unless you're talking about having the Batmobile actually race, in which case we're completely on board:
So you keep it simple, you keep it straightforward, you focus on the kids and work upwards from there. It's doable, and it could pay off big, as long as nobody starts getting too cheesy with the idea of combining costumed superheroes and guys who drive in circles for a living. Easy, right?
We're still in the "any sponsorship is good sponsorship" phase of NASCAR right now, but there is hope. At least DC Comics has recognizable superheroes. And if the Hendrick guys play this right, they might end up in the Justice League movie. Dale Junior vs. the Joker? Jimmie Johnson vs. Darkseid? We'll take it.